The reductio ad absurdum is one of the most devastating forms of argument. Show a man how his doctrines lead to absurdities, and you will almost always vanquish him in debate. Say a man is in favor of gay marriage; it is easy to show that the arguments in favor of gay marriage may also be adduced in support of polygamy or polyandry, or of marriage to animals, or even marriage to oneself, or to material objects. “Oh, pish,” he will say, “be serious. There is no slippery slope here; no one would do such silly things.” But people are already marrying inanimate objects, animals, and themselves. If you point this out to him, he won’t really have anywhere to go. You will leave him speechless.
But while you’ll make him feel frustrated and upset, you won’t change his mind (because he’ll be frustrated and upset at you). To do that, you have to talk with him in such a way that he himself elicits the absurdities implicit in his opinions. If he is himself the agent of the reductio, his defenses against intellectual attack will not have been mobilized.
The Socratic Method may be used to help moderns recognize the absurdities they espouse, and, having done so, to begin an honest deliberation toward a solution to the intellectual problem you have helped them discover.
The key to the technique is, not to try to demolish your adversary, but to ask questions in a spirit of true inquiry, as interested to find out more about his convictions, and their rational bases. He will, you may be sure, feel that there are indeed such bases, and that they are beautiful: orderly, coherent, elegant, satisfying. He could not otherwise hold to his beliefs. Your interest in his understanding of the rational bases of his doctrines should not be a pose, for that would be hypocrisy. That’s OK; it needn’t be. You may understand yourself as engaged in a project of natural history, to understand the liberal sort of mind – or, indeed, to test the rationality and coherence of your own doctrines in the fire of a serious, charitable consideration of the arguments of those who disagree with you.
How might such a gentle Socratic reductio run? Here’s an example, adapted from a comment I made last year over at VFR. Liberal Lou and his friend Traditionalist Tom have been talking about Lou’s kids, and how his boy plays war while his girl plays dolls, no matter what he and his wife do to encourage them otherwise:
Lou: It kills me. We give Joe a doll house, and we give Jill a set of toy trucks and cars. So Joe uses the doll house for artillery practice. He made a catapult out of a stick and a board, and used it to lob clods of dirt at his doll house. [Here Lou chuckles, despite himself, at what a cool idea this is.] Meanwhile Jill is having tea parties where the cement mixer is the mommy, the crane is the daddy, and the sports cars are the children. Drives Fran nuts.
Tom: And you guys have been doing everything to prevent this. What do you think accounts for it?
Lou: I don’t know, I think it must be genetic.
Tom: Wired in, huh?
Lou: Yup. It certainly isn’t training.
Tom: Why do you think those psychological differences between the sexes would have survived natural selection?
Lou: They must have conferred advantages.
Tom: How? What sort of advantages?
Lou: Well, in cave man days, the boys would have needed to grow up into warriors, and the women into mothers. In an emergency situation, the mothers of the clan would scurry to safety with the children, while the men formed a defensive shield. The men are bigger and stronger, so that arrangement makes sense. So it is natural, I suppose, that boys and girls would each be inclined to practice the relevant behaviors and ways of thought in early childhood.
Tom: But everything is different now, right?
Lou: Right … sort of. I mean, it’s getting better. [It is here that the reductio ad absurdum has been accomplished, and Lou draws back from the precipice.] But there is still a long way to go.
Tom: You mean there is a better than even likelihood that in a dangerous situation, the boy will be expected to deal with it, whereas the girl will be expected to deal with a problem relating to children.
Lou: Yeah. I guess.
Tom: So, are these psychological differences between boys and girls a good thing, or not?
Lou: I guess in some ways they are a good thing. It’s going to take a long time to change the world in such a way that boys won’t ever need to fight.
Tom: How long do you think it’s going to be before there is no fighting anymore?
Lou: I don’t know; 10,000 years, maybe! Maybe never.
Tom: So do you want your boy to be able to defend himself and his children, or not?
Lou: I guess I do. He may have to, someday.
Tom: What are you doing to train him in the fighting arts?